PITTSBURGH -- What had to be so unsettling for Pittsburgh Steelers fans as they watched the offensive line struggle in pass protection and with penalties Monday night is that not even Maurkice Pouncey was immune to the miscues.
The latest in the line of standout Steelers centers gave up a sack and was flagged 10 yards for an illegal use of hands penalty.
Yet the group that has generated much hand-wringing outside of the Steelers’ practice facility this week caused Pouncey to smile Thursday after practice. The three-time All-Pro pick said that it’s way too early, if not off base, to write off the Steelers’ offensive line.
"This is probably the best I’ve ever felt," Pouncey said of his confidence in the line. "We’re going to have the ability to be really, really good if everybody locks in and stays focused. We’ve got a young group that’s really athletic and hungry to get after things."
Pouncey’s opinion of the line didn’t change after watching tape of the 24-13 loss at Washington -- even though every starter except for left guard Ramon Foster drew at least one penalty and even though the first-team line had trouble protecting quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski.
"It’s small things that we can fix so easily, man, and that’s what we’ve been doing in practice, working our butts off to get everything squared away," Pouncey said. "We did a lot of good things running the ball. Protection-wise we slipped up some."
The last part of Pouncey’s evaluation may be an understatement. But running back Jonathan Dwyer validates Pouncey's point. Dwyer’s success against the Redskins’ first-team defense also reflects how the line has embraced the zone blocking scheme installed by first-year offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
Pouncey said zone blocking should help the Steelers’ offensive line better handle the defenses it encounters on a regular basis.
"These [defensive] guys are big and strong and athletic and power football is kind of out the window," Pouncey said. "[Man blocking is] a good supplement and we’re really, really good at it. But that outside zone loosens the guys up. You get them running, you get them tired and it kind of wears them out as the game goes on."
The starting offensive line gets one final dress rehearsal before the regular season, and it will come Saturday night against Kansas City at Heinz Field. The starters are expected to play the first half, and the Steelers game-planned for the Chiefs so the players could get acclimated to the part of the work weeks that are ahead in the regular season.
A strong showing by the offensive line against Kansas City would go a long way toward allaying fan anxiety about how the Steelers offense will fare this season.
The line did receive a vote of confidence on Thursday from Roethlisberger, and that has to count for something even if the veteran quarterback has fiercely protected his bodyguards in the past when they have been criticized.
"I see their work in practice," Roethlisberger said of the line. "I see their work in training camp. I see them in meetings and just see the continuity they have and it really instills a lot of confidence in me."